17 January 2013

The Authoritarian Science Myth

The image above shows President Dwight Eisenhower swearing in James Killian as the first science advisor to the US president. Eisenhower rushed through the ceremony because he wanted to leave on a golf trip to Augusta, Georgia. Little appreciated is that James Killian, widely celebrated at the best and most powerful science advisor was not a scientist at all.

Writing in yesterday's New York Times, physicist Laurence Krauss repeats a common call for scientists to occupy a position more central to political power:
Scientists’ voices are crucial in the debates over the global challenges of climate change, nuclear proliferation and the potential creation of new and deadly pathogens. But unlike in the past, their voices aren’t being heard.
He wistfully invokes a mythological golden age of scientific authoritarianism:
The men who built the bomb had enormous prestige as the greatest physics minds of the time. They included Nobel laureates, past and future, like Hans A. Bethe, Richard P. Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Ernest O. Lawrence and Isidor Isaac Rabi

In June 1946, for instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had helped lead the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., argued that atomic energy should be placed under civilian rather than military control. Within two months President Harry S. Truman signed a law doing so, effective January 1947.
There are two problems with Krauss's diagnosis and prescription. First, science and scientists have never been more central to policy making than they are today. Second, the golden age of scientific authority that he invokes is a fable that scientists tell themselves to justify their current demand for more authority in politics.

These themes are discussed in our 2009 paper playfully titled, "The Rise and Fall of the Science Advisor to the President of the United States," published in Minerva and here in PDF. The science advisor is arguably the most prominent scientist in the US government and the focus of decades of discussion about authority and power of science in government.

Here is what we concluded:
Over the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st governance can be characterized by an ever increasing reliance on specialized expertise. There are several reasons for this trend, which include the challenges of dealing with risks to human well being and security—from terrorism to the safety of food supplies, from natural disasters to human influences on the environment, from economic shocks, globalization, and many more. Some of these risks are the result of purposive technological innovation, such as the invention and proliferation of nuclear technologies beginning with the Manhattan Project during World War II. Because innovation can create new risks, a new proactive politics has emerged seeking to limit technological innovation and diffusion. Examples of this dynamic can be seen in efforts to limit the presence of genetically modified crops in Europe, to contain research on stem cells in the United States, and to militate against the consequences of economic globalization around the world.
In this context, the need for expert advice in government has increased exponentially. But one of the effects of the triumph of expertise has been the diminishment of the president’s science advisor as the ‘‘go-to’’ individual on issues with a scientific or technical component. In many respects, the science advisor is just another person with a Ph.D. staffing the Executive Offices of the President. President Obama received high marks from the scientific community for appointing a number of prominent scientists to administrative positions, including a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to Secretary of Energy, illustrating that the science advisor s but one of many highly qualified people in an administration. The science advisor does have a very unique role in helping to oversee and coordinate the budgets of agencies that support science, but even here the science advisor’s role is subject tothe idiosyncrasies of each administration.

In the future it seems improbable that the science advisor’s role would return to the exalted position that it held for a brief time during the Eisenhower Administration. In any case, that exalted position may be more mythical than real, which has set the stage today for some unrealistic expectations about the position.
Do read Krauss' piece and then read ours. Feel free to come back and comment.

For further reading, see our book on presidential science advisors.


  1. When discussions like this arise, I'm struck by a historical example. Some of the genius-level physicists who created the A-bomb were eager to use it on Germany but upset and even opposed when the end of the war in Europe meant it might be used on Japan instead. It's not to hard to see the meanness and irrationality in their thought process.

    The meanness lies in the fact that Hitler and Nazism had disrupted their lives as Europeans or those with close ties with Europe. As terrible as it was, the trouble that Japan had created in Asia, particularly China, had no impact on them.

    The irrationality is seen by how each use of the A bomb would affect the course of that particular phase in the war. Using an A bomb on a German city would have made little or no difference. Hitler already had a scorched earth policy and most large Germany cities were already rubble. Nuking Germany, had it been possible, wouldn't have shortened the war. It would have just killed a lot of innocent people. And it's the meanness of that killing that I suspect motivated those physicists.

    On the other hand, there were Japanese cities that we'd deliberately not bombed, including Hiroshima And the Japanese high command was closely divided about continuing the war as the threat of a US invasion loomed. The critical vote AFTER the two A bombs were dropped was four to four, with the Emperor casting the deciding fifth vote for peace. With Japan, the bombs, terrible as they were, did shorten the war and save many lives. Truman was right. Those scientist were wrong.

    That illustrates why I rather drop-the-A-bomb sorts of decisions be made by a former hat-salesman (Truman), rather than elite scientists. Being brilliant in a particular speciality and spending your life being doted upon as a prodigy from childhood to academia doesn't do a good job of humanizing someone. For a lot of positions, ordinary people with better than ordinary integrity are the best choice.

    I got a glimpse of that in graduate school when I took a course from a prestigious special professor of some sort--a big name in his field. When I showed up for the class, there were only six of us from a campus of over 30,000 students. He was obviously miffed about that, and proceeded to railroad us into changing the course to a different topic, one covering a particular hobby horse of his. We weren't given a choice about his bait-and-switch tactic, so when I left that day I dropped his class and substituted another. For that, I got a nasty letter from him.

    I would not want to live in a world where policy decisions are made by self-important prima donnas like that elite professor. As the old adage goes, a desire for unrestrained power is almost always an indication that someone is unqualified for that power.

    I prefer my leaders reluctant and all too aware that they're ordinary enough to fail.

    --Michael W. Perry, author of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II

  2. What could scientists add to the effort for nuclear nonproliferation. In particular, what could scientists add to the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or North Korea from obtaining an effective missile delivery system for those that it has.

    These are political, diplomatic and economic issues and would gain little benefit from the contributions of PhD physicists however distinguished. The current climate debate has proven time and time again that scientists have very little useful to add to a political discussion over competing values

  3. In his article, Krauss name drops many distinguished physicists as being opposed to nuclear weapons with the clear implications that their deep knowledge of physics gives them special insight into the political problem of nuclear weapons. One could point out in regard to this that not only was Johnny Von Neumann not opposed to nuclear weapons but that he also wanted them used against the Soviet Union. Von Neuamnn was as significant a scholar as any of those mentioned by Krauss and more significant than most of them. I can only see Einstein as someone in Krauss' list on a par with Von Neuamnn. With his work in computing and game theory Von Neuamnn has had a dramatic effect on the modern world. So the idea that "science" dictate a certain policy position on the political problem so nuclear weapons is spurious.

    Einstein was a pacifist. Von Neumann was an ardent advocate of war with what he saw as an evil government in the Soviet Union. One can drop distinguished names for any political position one chooses.

  4. Politicians often award scientists great credit. I can think of quite a few:

    Edward Teller had the ear of several presidents. (For those who don't know, he actively promoted the H-bomb, and then giving the N-bomb to Israel. Violently opposed to nuclear containment treaties.)

    Fritz Haber was a Nobel prize winner, and hero to the Germans. (And an unrepentant driver for poison gas in warfare.)

    How about Werner von Braun? (Or, if we really want to put the boot in about the moral superiority of scientists, Joseph Mengele.)

    Why do those examples get left out?

    (Meanwhile J Robert Oppenheimer is a terrible example. His views were excluded almost as soon as the war ended because of his communists sympathies. There was no "golden era" for him.)

  5. There is one single, most prominent reason ...

    The automatic development of a vertical thermal gradient (AKA "lapse rate") in any atmosphere in a gravitational field has been confirmed by over 800 experiments since 2002. It happens at the molecular level, regardless of the surface temperature or the amount of convection. Details are in "Planetary Surface Temperatures. A Discussion of Alternative Mechanisms."

    This autonomous "lapse rate" fully explains that "33 degrees of warming" without any need for any greenhouse effect.

    All should read this comment by, Geoff Wood, qualified in astrophysics.


    The following are excerpts ..

    As Doug has said about a dozen times, gravity modifies the mean free path between collisions. That is ‘every’ upward, ‘every’ downward ‘every’ sideways, ‘every’, ‘every’ free molecular path between collisions is modified. Therefore it is impossible for the modified ‘collisions’ that result, not to impart the gravitational ‘information’ into the macroscopic development of the gravitational thermal profile. This is the ‘diffusion’ process.

    At this point, we have a reasonable depiction of the thermal profile of ANY atmosphere. FROM BASIC PHYSICS.

    Given a simple reason why any atmosphere tends towards this isentropic profile as depicted and described by entry level physics, why would anyone look for a more complicated reason to explain what we already know!

    The point which Geoff and I make is that the "33 degrees of warming" supposedly caused by water vapour and carbon dioxide etc was already there due to the effect of gravity on the atmosphere. This happens on all planets, and also fully explains why the poles of Venus are over 720K, even though they receive less than 1W/m^2 of direct insolation from the Sun. For more detail read my article "The 21st Century New Paradigm Shift in Climate Change Science" easily found with Google. I've also recorded an introductory 10 minute video here http://youtu.be/r8YbyfqUvfY

    Doug Cotton


  6. I publish research on gas-phase physics. My book on physical chemistry just came out. In it we discuss gravitation effects on equilibrium, thermodynamics, etc. Those are my credentials.

    Gravity not only does not create a thermal gradient; it cannot. One formulation of the Second Law is that heat spontaneously flows from regions of high temperature to regions of low temperature. The only way this can be reversed is to couple it to another process that creates more entropy. Gravity is an acceleration, not a source of entropy. A planetary atmosphere, at equilibrium, has a pressure gradient, but not a temperature gradient. The only way to create a temperature gradient is to provide a flow of energy. Ours comes from the sun.

    I know I shouldn't be wasting my time with crackpot theories on the net, but I felt the need to say this once.

  7. Moderation note:

    This is not the post to discuss thermal gradients, unless you are referring to the difference in political heat experienced between OSTP and OMB.

    Now that everyone has had a say, please, let's focus on science policy. Thanks!

  8. The problems of science in society were examined by Kurt Vonnegut in the novel Cat's cradle. Vonnegut had interviewed a number of scientists previously.

    He characterised Oppenheimer as a dehumanised simpleton who was only interested in solving puzzles with no concern with the consequences. Therefore very easy to manipulate.


    I found the novel a bit tasteless myself.

    I believe the Manhattan Project scientists were told that Werner Heisenberg was close to making a bomb. They were also told a story about gas chambers in Poland. Many were Jewish.

  9. Roger;

    ",, new proactive politics has emerged seeking to limit technological innovation and diffusion. Examples of this dynamic can be seen in efforts to limit the presence of genetically modified crops in Europe, to contain research on stem cells in the United States, ..."
    Do your prefer re-active, maybe retroactive, perhaps inactive politics over 'proactive politics?' What is your problem with a President allowing no tax revenues for studies associated with infanticide/feticide?
    Check Wm Briggs for an exploration of what technology and science offer modern parents-to-be.